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Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read (Great Courses) Paperback – June 25, 2013
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“The most erudite, readable book anyone has ever written on the sentence.”—Adrian Blevins, associate professor of English, Colby College
“An Elements of Style for the prodigious, Building Great Sentences is a service to writers and a joy to read.”—R.M. Berry, professor, Florida State University
About the Author
Dr. Brooks Landon is Herman J. and Eileen S. Schmidt Professor of English and Collegiate Fellow at The University of Iowa and Director of the University’s General Education Literature Program. He lives in Iowa.
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Because cumulatives begin with a simple base sentence, they’re easy to understand even as they add modifying phrases that lengthen them—to 40 words, 60, even100 and more. Here’s a fun one by Landon himself, from his How to Build Great Sentences, with the first five words being the base sentence:
"He drove the car carefully, his shaggy hair whipped by the wind, his eyes hidden behind wraparound mirror shades, his mouth set in a grim smile, a .38 Police Special on the seat beside him, the corpse stuffed in the trunk".
Landon teaches a popular class in prose style at the University of Iowa; with his focus on the sentence, and especially on the unique properties and benefits of its cumulative form, he’s among a handful of distinguished holdouts against the plain style. Their research into what genius writers and highly skilled professional wordsmiths often do began with an obscure 1946 essay, “The Craft of Writing,” by John Erskine. A novelist, pianist, and composer who taught at Columbia University, Erskine argued that it isn't actually the noun or the verb but the modifier that is "the essential part of any sentence."
Rhetorician Francis Christensen took up Erskine's point—and changed writing instruction for a while in the 1960s and ’70s. Many high school students and college freshmen were taught to improve their writing by imitating masterful long sentences and by combining short sentences to make compound and complex ones. Although this worked, the movement crashed under an academic counter-attack in the 1980s. Landon touches on the reasons, and cites an elegiac essay, “The Erasure of the Sentence,” by Robert J. Connors. Connors essentially says that having students imitate wasn’t sexy enough to prevail in academe. Christensen’s methods, he says, were seen as mechanistic, “lore-based,” and lacking in supporting theory.
The stunning irony, to any practitioner reading about this academic dispute, is that writers, including literary artists, have always learned by imitation. In writing classes, and certainly in creative writing workshops, the precocious stars are those who, having fallen in love with words, sentences, and stories long before, have already spent years informally studying them. In swimming through libraries, such writers absorbed structures and rhythms that make prose sing or pack a punch.
Building Great Sentences concentrates such a process and makes learning overt. Chapter Five, “The Rhythm of Cumulative Syntax,” drills down into their structure. Upon finishing it, on Page 67, you might wonder how Landon will fill his book’s remaining pages—ten subsequent chapters. Indeed, you have the gist of his point and grasp the reason for his passion. But Landon continues: to teach more about cumulatives; to consider a few other sentence patterns; to offer further insights into balance, suspense, and the rhetorical effects of using two examples, or three, or four (and more).
In other words, everything after Chapter Five is elaboration—and more nitty gritty for actual writers, who should draw near and study. The focus on one key pattern allows Landon to go deep without losing the serious student. And thankfully, Landon’s own prose is elegant and accessible. He uses as few grammatical terms as possible. This is a study of prose effects and how to achieve them—of rhetoric, that is, not grammar per se. He deftly cites other contemporary and past theorists, distilling their thought and giving motivated teachers and writers a way to locate and learn from them as well.
For me, as a memoirist, a fascinating corollary aspect of Building Better Sentences is how cumulatives can help finesse persona. The writer's reflective persona is crucial in memoir because readers reflexively judge memoirists and the past selves they are portraying. Landon says cumulative sentences present a writer who's trying harder, lend themselves to reflection, and remind readers "of the creative mind that crafted that sentence." That’s "one of the functions of style: to remind us of the mind behind the sentences we read," he says. The macho plain style, in contrast, isn't inclined toward pursuit of deeper meaning and has a take-it-or-leave-it quality.
I don’t entirely agree with Landon about plain style's flaws in fiction—that subject is very complex, and his two examples poorly illustrate his contention. Yet his overall notion, based on his preference for depth of inquiry, seems valid. I’m totally on board with his championing of the cumulative sentence and with its implications for nonfiction. Especially when blended with simple and compound sentences, cumulatives offer many options for rhythmic variety and emphasis.
Landon treats Strunk and White's The Elements of Style kindly, even though it’s an exemplar of and an advocate for plain style. Aimed at beginning writers, remember, The Elements of Style is a fine and bracing brief for clarity of thought and expression. And professional writers do discover the beauty of simple declarative sentences, after all. They’re always looking for places to use them. They also, of course, make sentences of other lengths and patterns.
Usually the results of learning to write by imitating great sentences are credited to individual talent. That obscures the way craft is actually acquired in a monkey-see, monkey-do process. For writers serious about improving, learning craft becomes steadily more focused and overt, as well as more self-prescribed and self-directed. After reading Building Great Sentences, I’ll write more and better cumulative sentences.
Landon performs a valuable service for writers, teachers, and rhetoricians in explaining his obsession with cumulatives, spotlighting their relative simplicity, their flowing beauty, their subtle but steady reassurance about the writer, and their effectiveness in conveying rhythm, emotion, and information. Building Great Sentences is one of the top writing books in my library, and it’s the most useful study of the sentence I’ve ever read.